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Russia stages fake ‘Ukrainian people’s tribunal’ in Donbas

Halya Coynash

All of Ukraine’s leaders, including President Petro Poroshenko have just received ‘life sentences’ after an elaborate public ‘trial’ staged in the self-proclaimed and Russian-backed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR].  The stunt, which public-sector workers were forced to attend, would not be worth a mention had it not been for the significant and very specific coverage it received on Russian state-controlled media. 

The so-called ‘Ukrainian people’s tribunal’ was held over several months, and even had its very own website and YouTube page.  Most of the roles were played by real people, however the ‘defendants’ (Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and others) were represented only by their photographs, and were more than likely unaware that they were ‘on trial’.  According to a person from Luhansk using the name (almost certainly a pseudonym) Olha Kucher, these photograph–defendants were represented by an attractive lawyer who “tried tentatively to defend them”, against a hard-hitting ‘prosecutor’ in front of a panel of three ‘judges’ and a ‘jury’. 

Kucher writes that you couldn’t get away from the ‘trial’ which would be broadcast  “after the news during the family dinner, and you’d end up involuntarily seeing how the pretty judge with her beautifully-styled hair and make up would ask the poor witnesses which of their relatives’ limbs exactly had been torn off – the right or the left?  Above the knee or below?

There were hundreds of such ‘witness hearings’, including about people having supposedly been “in Ukrainian captivity and subjective to inconceivable torture and humiliation”.

The ‘sentences’ – guilty on all counts and life sentences in absentia – were “the cherry on the cake”, with thousands of public-sector workers brought in by coaches from 5 a.m. on 22 June.   

This elaborate spectacle all took place, appropriately enough, on Theatre Square.

If Kucher and others she spoke with clearly viewed this supposed ‘tribunal’ as a stunt or reality show, Russian state-controlled media presented it all like the militants in ‘LPR’, with one important difference.

The TASS news agency reports of the so-called ‘Ukrainian people’s tribunal’ assiduously avoided any mention of the fact that the event was being staged by the Kremlin-backed ‘LPR’.  The aim was clearly to present it as some kind of spontaneous and bone fide initiative by “residents of Donbas” against their own President, Prime Minister, etc. 

Earlier on 22 June, TASS reported that “Thousands of people in the centre of Luhansk are awaiting announcement of the Ukrainian people’s tribunal”.  The report uses no inverted commas at all, while using the vocabulary appropriate for recognized criminal investigations and court trials.

Half-way through the report, it explains that “In March this year, an initiative group of Ukrainian citizens living in Donetsk and Luhansk announced the creation of a Ukrainian people’s tribunal to investigate the war crimes of the Poroshenko regime”.

This alleged ‘trial’ was supposedly “on the basis of Ukrainian legislation, taking into account the norms of international law”.  The charges included ‘genocide’ and ‘creation of illegal armed formations’.   The ‘tribunal’, TASS claimed, had reviewed “over 1089 volumes of material”.

Later that day TASS reported that “The Ukrainian people’s tribunal has sentenced Poroshenko to life imprisonment in absentia”, saying that he and seven other high-ranking Ukrainian public officials had been found guilty of “organizing genocide as well as abetting terrorist acts”.

The words ‘in absentia’ in that title were essentially the only indication in the entire report of anything untoward about this supposed ‘trial by Ukrainian people’s tribunal’ which was claimed to have been based on Ukraine’s Criminal Code.  A report of TV Rossiya 24 was equally short on certain critical questions.

Some hint of what this bizarre reality show was for can be found in TASS’s quoting of ‘presiding judge’ Olena Shishkina.  She asserted that “in passing sentence, the tribunal was guided not only by Ukraine’s Criminal Code and the Decree of the People’s criminal tribunal on Ukraine, the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (the Fourth Geneva Convention) and the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts of 1977.”

The full ‘sentence’ is to be sent, Shishkina claimed, to the International Criminal Court; the United Nations Office on Genocide Protection and other international human rights organizations “for measures to be taken for its implementation”.

The said bodies might legitimately begin by asking why photographs of Ukrainian leaders were ‘tried’ in the men’s absence and whether they had even been informed of these ‘proceedings’.

In September 2015, Ukraine’s Government lodged a declaration with the International Criminal Court [ICC], accepting the exercise of jurisdiction of the ICC in relation to alleged crimes committed on its territory from 20 February 2014 onwards, with no end date.

The ICC’s Chief Prosecutor has already determined that Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea constitutes an international armed conflict which falls within its jurisdiction.  Although it has yet to make a definite statement with respect to elements of an international armed conflict with respect to Donbas, Ukraine and human rights organizations have provided volumes of evidence to back this position.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s petulant response to the Chief Prosecutor’s conclusions regarding Crimea was to issue an order stating that Russia would not be joining the ICC.  Coming a day after the ICC report was published, the message could not have been more obvious.  It was also meaningless, since Ukraine has acknowledged the Court’s jurisdiction and Russia can be deemed liable for crimes committed on foreign territory regardless of whether or not it is a member of the International Criminal Court.  

Russia also failed in March 2017 to persuade the UN’s International Court of Justice that it did not have jurisdiction to hear claims brought against it by Ukraine over violations of the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  Ukraine has now submitted a very substantial amount of evidence to back its claims, which Russia must respond to over the coming months.

All such international proceedings will take a long time, but are based on substantive evidence, often compiled by international NGOs or, as in the investigation into the downing by a Russian BUK missile of Malaysian airliner MH17, by a state-level international investigative team. 

Russia would appear to be trying to ‘compete’ by getting its puppet ‘republics’ in Donbas to stage their own ‘trial’.   




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